Internet speed: Which is better, ADSL or cable?

November 11 2012 by Ellen Roseman

This is a guest post from Lloyd Davidson, a technology consultant with residential and business clients. He has strong views about the Internet speeds that are advertised but not always delivered.

I’ve been getting a few comments from people who disagree with his views, so be warned. These are opinions only. Feel free to disagree.

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From Lloyd Davidson:

I am writing this for people within the Toronto area, who have a choice between cable provided by Rogers or ADSL provided by Bell Canada — or any one of the many suppliers that use their infrastructure.

Internet speed is important because it makes a big difference in the responsiveness of the system you are using. That system is likely a computer, but it can also be a TV, tablet, cell phone or an Internet-based phone.

If Internet speed is too slow, the experience of using the device will be very disappointing, if not impossible.

One key issue: You won’t likely get to know how good your service is until you actually install it. Talk to your neighbours. You may want to negotiate a cancellation clause.

This is a complex topic. I’m not a communications engineer who fully understands all the details of how this works. I serve a broad variety of computer users throughout this area. My comments here are based on my observations among my clients’ installations.

In most cases, Internet services delivered over the Bell Canada infrastructure are not as fast as cable-based services. The reasons have nothing to do with the service companies, but have to do with their respective systems of cables, wires and connections.

Cable companies use coaxial cable. Telephone companies, for the most part, use twisted-pair wire to deliver ADSL services.

Among my clientele, ADSL customers rarely receive higher speeds than 3Mbps. I have one that gets 4.2Mbps. Most get under 2.5. I have seen some as low as 0.5.

Cable customers receive 90% of the contracted speeds and usually higher. The speeds claimed by both are roughly the same, but what gets delivered is a completely different story. Prices are roughly the same and are currently highly negotiable at Bell and Rogers.

Both cable and ADSL infrastructure can be improved by the use of fibre optic cables. Fibre is capable of hugely faster speeds, but is expensive. Most services in this area use fibre to some extent. To my knowledge, none have fibre into homes.

In most places in the Toronto area, Rogers has fibre on the street. You share that fibre with your neighbours. So, if you have several neighbours who are big downloaders, you could see big effects on your speed.

Bell has fibre to some neighbourhood cabinets. I have also heard that Bell has a few areas in which it has installed bundles of fibre down the street – one per customer.

If Bell has fibre on the pole outside your home, you should consider Bell and its other Bell infrastructure sellers equal competitors to Rogers and its infrastructure sellers. It can be challenging to get straight answers to this question.

Here’s the reason ADSL customers get such widely varying speeds: ADSL technology depends on short wire length, wire quality and perfect connections. Key word here – wire length.

Wire length, in this context, means how long the wire is between your modem and the telephone company’s central office (or a fibre connection) where your particular wire terminates. That is not the distance you walk or drive. You may have 100 feet or more before it leaves your property. There are a lot of connections in those wires and if any one of them is not perfect, it has a drastic effect on your speed.

Most homes have telephone wires installed by telephone technicians years ago and those connections mattered little for voice quality.

The following are what can be expected (5280 feet = 1 mile):

Distance in Feet, DSL Type and Speed

Less than 11,000 ADSL – from 3.0 Mbps to 5.0 Mbps download
11,000 to 17,000 ADSL – from 1.5 Mbps to 3.0 Mbps download
17,000 to 20,000 Ext Reach DSL – from 384 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps download

Note that these speeds assume ideal conditions.

Pay close attention to those letters: Mbps, which stands for Mega Bits Per Second. That is different from MBps, which is Mega Bytes per second. A byte is roughly 10 bits.

KBps stands for Kilo Bytes Per second. There are 1000 K in an M.

Also, pay close attention to the fact that you are contracting for TWO speeds — one down and the other up. Up speed matters little for browsing the web or reading email, but matters a lot if you use Skype, a VOIP phone, or you want to send a lot of big pictures or big files.

Up speed is typically a small fraction of down speed. In most cases, 1Gbps will serve your needs well.

The A in ADSL stands for asynchronous, which means you get slower up than down. The common abbreviation of DSL may be a misnomer. If the DSL offer provides up speed equivalent to the down speed, it is truly DSL.

DSL is uncommon. I have not seen an instance of it, but have been told by others that it does exist.

There are a lot of factors to consider in making your particular decision, ADSL Vs. cable. A lot depends on your specific situation:

• Quality of the connections on your property.
• Length of twisted pair before it gets to fibre. Lengths of 100 yards or less can deliver very high speeds – one that I know of gets 32Gbps.
• Quality of service in your particular community – really your street or building.
• Charges for high volume downloads (e.g. videos, TV).
• Condo/Apartment negotiated deals.
• Bundles of services offered by each will vary.

One key issue: You won’t likely get to know how good your service is until you actually install it. Talk to your neighbours. You may want to negotiate a cancellation clause.

There are geographical areas served by Rogers that are under-served. There are also geographical areas that get much better service using ADSL, because very high quality wire and fibre optic cables are installed.

You should plan to reconsider your decision every couple of years, because of improvements that may have been made in networks. Those effects can be quite local. If the competitive circumstances continue, you may find a better deal in switching.

If you wish to check the speed that you are getting, the most neutral speed testing site I know of is www.speedtest.net. Run the test several times and several different times in a day to get a true picture.

Your perceived Internet service may be different from what was contracted for, because the Internet is a complex structure in itself. Your delivered Internet service is but one of the components. If you go to a website that is slow, your Internet service at that site will be slow, regardless of your service provider’s service.

Your computer can have a big effect as well. It could be old and slow and/or infected.

The difference between using Rogers or Bell as opposed to one of the other companies is customer service. When you call a smaller company, you usually get someone on the phone who is happy you called. However, keep in mind that if you have a physical problem such as wires, the smaller company has no one on staff to fix it.

Rogers is selling a new modem called DOCSIS 3. This replaces the older DOCSIS 2 modem. DOCSIS 3 modems are capable of much faster speeds.

In the Toronto area, Rogers customer service (not technical service) department can raise your up speed quite substantially for no additional cost iF you have a DOCSIS 3 modem.

7 comments

  1. MrDisco

    Nov 11 2012

    I had to read this article a couple of times, but I have to admit I’m greatly confused.

    “Bottom line: ADSL will likely deliver a maximum of 3Mbps. Cable will deliver 6Mbps for roughly the same price.”

    Bell.ca currently offers a 25/10 Mbps package (ignore the Fiber to the Curb tiers). I myself have a much older 7/1 package.

    Rogers.com offers a 150/10 tier (again ignoring fiber).

    Is this a gross typo or am I misreading something? It’s also odd to be presenting a technical article and using terms like “told by others” or “I have also heard..” A technology consultant should be a tad more authoritative on such matters.

    It’s also curious no mention is made of monthly bitcaps, or some of the larger 3rd party companies (TekSavvy), which provide better caps and at lower costs.

    A tad disappointed. Readers are better served by reading a dedicated site such DSLreports.com (they have an excellent FAQ as well: http://www.dslreports.com/faqnew)

  2. Lloyd Davidson

    Nov 12 2012

    MrDisco: I suggest you test your line speed with a neutral speed test site, like http://www.speedtest.net.

    It would be best that you do this measurement with a computer connected by Ethernet cable to your router, rather than wirelessly.

    If you are getting 7/1 service, good for you. I have no doubt there are instances of very good service within that infrastructure in the Toronto area.

    I am reflecting my observations in serving my clients.

    I am a retired engineer with many years in the computing field. I look after the personal computers of friends, neighbours, colleagues and relatives.

    I have had a lot of experience doing this work. Currently, I am taking care of over 140 PCs.

    The vast majority are in the Toronto area, but some are far flung. These computers are in a wide variety of neighbourhoods and circumstances. Only 3 are downloaders. Most are not technically knowledgeable.

    I do a lot of that work by using remote control software, which is quite sensitive to Internet service speeds. I do upgrades and provide advice on replacements, as well as Internet services and networking.

    I focus on helping my clients make good investments and help them last, as well as providing a good computing experience.

    Time after time, my clients have told me that they were getting 6 or 7 Internet speeds and I have shown them that they were not.

    Pay a lot of attention to the weasel words – “up to.” I have yet to see an instance of 7/1 delivered by the telephone infrastructure.

    In Toronto, there are really only two infrastructures that provide this service – cable and phone systems. The owners of these systems are forced by regulation to provide access to competitors, but fundamentally, they are all still using the same technological structures.

    Fundamentally, twisted-pair wire, which is most of the telephone service system in Toronto, is very sensitive to distance (and quality). That results in widely varying service.

    Both the cable and the phone systems have been upgraded by using fibre, which is vastly superior. If you are lucky enough to be served by a system whose upgrades have reached you, then the two are competitive. If, however, that is not the case, you should take a close look at what you are actually getting for your money.

    My view is but one. There are many on the web. DSLreports is a good spot. But as in all things on the web, not all you read is really true.

  3. Charles in Vancouver BC

    Nov 12 2012

    A good rule of thumb is, if you live in an area where the DSL ISP is willing to sell you TV-over-IP (such as Telus Optik or Bell Fibe) service, you will probably get speeds competitive with cable. I’m a Telus Optik customer and I get 16.8 down / 1.1 up, whether or not my PVR is running. If I were on their higher speed package I’d likely be getting more like 25 down when the PVR is off, and at least as high as my current speeds when the PVR is active.

  4. MrDisco

    Nov 12 2012

    Lloyd, I’m sorry but what you are presenting is just wrong and does a complete disservice to the companies involved. I have no stake in the game, and am quite critical of both companies mentioned, but I can’t let readers be duped into thinking either service is as bad as you’re portraying it.

    Right after your article was Tweeted, I did in fact run a speed test using speedtest.net. The result? Speeds in the 6Mbps range on my Bell ADSL (read: non-fiber) line.

    I can flip over to my Rogers cable connection and also receive speeds as advertised. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of customers who equally receive very fast connections on either service.

    I too work in the industry (including using remote protocols) supporting hundreds of servers globally. I can easily spot when something is not being presented accurately.

    This article is picking a tiny number of users with extremely unusual connection speeds and ignoring the vast majority of users who get blazing fast connections in all parts of the GTA. (For the record, I’m in Thornhill, but have friends in Toronto who enjoy faster speeds for the price they’re paying.)

    You’ve also sidestepped one of my points. Claiming that users will receive a max of 3Mbps on ADSL when Bell offers a 25/10 package is simply wrong. Forums like DSLReports would be completely overrun with angry complaints if this were a widespread fact, but it’s not.

    The point of mentioning 3rd party companies was to present readers with alternatives from a pricing and bitcap perspective. Even casual users who may not download but engage in services like Netflix or iTunes need to be aware of their monthly usage.

    Again my point remains: I’m very disappointed in the accuracy and relevancy of this article.

  5. Traciatim

    Dec 3 2012

    I agree with MrDisco. The information in this article is flat out wrong.

    Things like “Up speed is typically a small fraction of down speed. In most cases, 1Gbps will serve your needs well.” . . .

    I’d like to know in what reality you live in that 1Gbps upstream speeds are available, affordable or even remotely close to “serve your needs well” unless, of course, you are serving some type of data distribution system for multiple users from your house.

    Just as an FYI, 1Gbps would send out about 119MB/s.

    This article really does sound like a paid for ad from Rogers. Something that I would think this blog wouldn’t do, but it certainly hurts its reputation severely.

  6. Ellen Roseman

    Dec 3 2012

    Hi Traciatim, that’s the beauty of a blog. You can disagree and state your views. MrDisco already did so.

    Readers can decide what to believe on their own.

    I have written before at this blog about Rogers’ customers complaining that their Internet speeds are too slow, http://blog.ellenroseman.com/?p=1201

    There are 30 comments you can read from other people.

    I have no paid ads from anyone at this blog and will continue to uphold that policy.

    One exception: Google places ads in exchange for supplying its search box.

  7. Lloyd Davidson

    Oct 17 2013

    You posted my opinion on your website that Rogers was dramatically faster than Bell. It was vehemently rejected by another contributor.

    PC Mag just published a study done with massive amount of input from all over. It shows pretty clearly what I was saying is true. This pretty much covered US and Canada.

    If you read the article – short read – you will see we in Canada get much faster rates than the US.

    Rogers speeds showed an average of 27.2, compared to Bell at an average of 11.1.

    You can find the article at:

    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2424464,00.asp#top-header

    In reality, Bell’s performance is wide ranging, from much worse than 11.1 to much better. It depends on the placement of fibre.

    If Bell’s fibre is close-by, you get excellent performance. If not, it is just terrible.

    So this average is really a bifurcated set of numbers.

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